By Sonia Barkat
At a set of 20 wooden garden beds, hidden behind the dance building at SUNY Purchase, students and faculty got to work, armed with shovels, gardening gloves, and small collections of sledgehammers.
The Fall Garden Cleanup and Planting Day last Monday was hosted by Allyson Jackson, a professor in the environmental studies department, who oversees the school’s Native Plant Garden which was established last spring. Volunteers at the cleanup helped plant native flowers, as well as put up fencing around the garden beds, working in teams to hammer metal stakes into the ground and wrap them with spools of chicken wire that were fastened into place with zip ties.
Where The Native Plant Garden now grows, there used to be a student-run plot.
“They tried to grow vegetable for a bunch of years,” explained Jackson, “but growing vegetables is difficult because we don’t have water running out there; we had to run it pretty far away…and it’s peak season in July when no one’s here.”
According to Jackson, a student from Green Team came to her last year saying they were thinking of growing native plants.
“The idea behind it is that we have a lot of invasives on campus and in our area in general, so native plants have a hard time establishing and growing, and that’s what pollinators and birds need to survive,” said Jackson. “I heard some people being unhappy, or not understanding why you would plant native plants, because in theory they should be growing everywhere. The problem is they don’t anymore.”
The garden has grown to be a collaborative effort between faculty and students.
“I worked with Allyson Jackson last year in getting the permissions to start up the garden, and helped them get funding through Green Fee,” said Angie Kim, the college’s sustainability coordinator, who participated at the planting day. “I also did a lot of watering the garden during the summer while students were away. So, dragging out this 500 foot hose. I would say Allyson and her students are the main people behind the garden, but I try to support it as much as I can, because it’s doing a lot for campus sustainability.”
Samantha Scalice is an environmental studies major who’s working on the project as an independent study.
“Before we started anything it was this really dead, sad looking vegetable garden that was overgrown and a mess,” said Scalice. “We really got it in shape over thee. I think it’s a little more aesthetically pleasing now than I was expecting. I was thinking of it from a straight science perspective, but it was a pleasant surprise how nice and tranquil it really is over there. I just love being a part of something that allows for more biodiversity. Humans are doing so much to harm the earth, so it’s great to be able to combat that a little bit.”
Jackson said the initial planting was partly just to see what would happen.
“It’s been really fun to work with students in a different way, especially when we first built the garden,” said Jackson. “It took a bunch of days to build it in the spring, because first we had to cut the pieces of wood that made the sides [of the garden beds] and then rototill. I’m not a carpenter, so me and all the students had to figure it out together.”
There were some issues with the company they ordered from sending the wrong plants, Jackson recalled, and those plants getting eaten by deer and, primarily, rabbits.
“This fall we decided we were going to get fencing to keep the rabbits out, and plant some new flowers, so this was the second planting,” Jackson said. “Theoretically from now on, as long as we can keep the rabbits out, these are perennial plants that will come back every year.”
According to Kim, native species and biodiversity are two important things the garden promotes.
“I want to say it’s somewhat cultural, too, having plants that are native to the region,” said Kim. “The garden also has a very important aspect as an engagement and education piece. People, students, the campus community, can visit it as much as they want, on their own time.”
Kim, Scalice and Jackson all say they visit the garden when they get a chance.
“Over the summer it was really nice,” said Jackson. “When the flowers are blooming you go out there and it’s just all the butterflies and bees buzzing around, and you can sit in the middle of it—I would sit out there a lot.”
Scalice, too, said it is a good place to go and experience nature.
“A lot of the world is very indoors, on computers and technology,” said Scalice. “It’s healthy, you know?”
As someone who is stuck inside much of the time herself, Kim said it is “nice to have tangible material to work with sometimes, and to have this project. One of my favorite things, too, is seeing students participating in that. I’ve done a few tree and flower plantings in the past, and students often say it’s the first time they’ve ever done anything like this.”
Paola Cruz-Martinez is a student who attended the planting day after hearing an announcement about it in one of Jackson’s classes.
“I used to help my grandma repot her plants all the time when I was younger,” Cruz-Martinez said. “So I just love working with plants. I thought this was a good way to do that because I haven’t had a chance to for a while. And I live in the city, so it’s not like I can really have much of a garden.”
Jackson hopes to get other students more involved with the garden by getting other teachers to use it in their curricula, whether it be in science classes or in art classes that could use the space to paint or draw. In her own courses, she uses the space to conduct labs on occasion.
According to Kim, unless a course utilizes the garden or a student passes it on their way to or from the commons, it’s likely they wouldn’t know about the garden at all.
“I just want students to know that it’s there,” Kim said.